Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

Elijah McCoy (1844-1929), mechanical engineer and patentor of automated lubrication for steam engines

Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy's parents - George and Mildred - were fugitive slaves from Kentucky who escaped to Canada (exact date unknown). George McCoy enlisted in the British Army and fought in the 1837 rebellion in Canada and was rewarded with 160 acres of farmland near Colchester, Ontario.

Elijah was born in 1844 and from an early age he displayed a special fascination and aptitude with mechanical devices and spent much of his spare time tinkering with machines. When Elijah was 16, with the moral and financial support of his parents, he was sent to Edinburgh to begin a Mechanical Engineering Apprenticeship and to study at Edinburgh University as at that time training of comparable quality was not available to his race in either United States or Canada.

When Elijah was in Scotland the Civil War broke out (1861 - 1865), American slaves were freed, and Elijah's family returned to the USA and settled near Michigan and upon completion of his studies in Edinburgh, Elijah joined them there.

Although Elijah McCoy was a "qualified Mechanical Engineer", (exact qualifications not known), because of his race he could not secure a job that directly related to his qualifications. He accepted a job in 1870 as a fireman and oiler in the Michigan Central Railroad shovelling coal and lubricating engine parts with a hand-held oil can which required the train to stop every few miles to be manually lubricated. After experimenting for two years in a makeshift machine shop McCoy's original invention, which he described as a "lubricating cup," allowed oil to flow around the engine at a steady rate without the need for the train to stop. In July 1872, he obtained his first patent for his automatic lubricator, "Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines" (US Patent No 129,843) and over the next two years McCoy received three patents for improvements to the lubricating cup.

Almost as soon as McCoy's automatic lubricators became available, a host of imitation products appeared on the market. Most did not work as well as the original inventions. Legend has it that prospective buyers, wary of purchasing machinery with an inferior lubricating system, would ask "Is it the real McCoy" before agreeing to the sale. Thus, a new expression became part of our language, as the "Real McCoy" came to mean whatever was the best and genuine article as applied to all things.

McCoy continued to refine his device and designed new ones and obtained 57 patents during his life and whilst 50 were directly related to lubrication, others included a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler.

Michigan Central Railroad, the company McCoy worked for was the first to use his invention and up to 1915 McCoy 's engine lubricator cup was the standard equipment on trains and steamships.

Elijah McCoy worked with Michigan Central Railroad from 1870 to 1882, then worked as a consultant to several Engineering Companies until he founded his own company in 1920.

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